“When I got to the room I was using to pump, there was someone in it taking a nap.”
“I found a carrel in the library, but it wasn’t very private.”
“I heard there’s a secret room in the Whitmore administration building, but it’s not a designated space so we’re quiet about it.”
These are all statements I heard while helping mothers who were students at a local university try to figure out where they were going to pump once they returned to school.
When it comes rights to pumping accommodations campus, students are out of luck.
While there has been considerable effort made in state and federal law to require that employers make accommodations for nursing mothers, these requirements don’t apply to students (unless they are also employees). There is no state or federal law which affords students break time and a clean, private place to pump.
Can a student be penalized academically for breastfeeding or requesting time and a place to pump? This is less clear, thanks to a recent ruling on employment discrimination and breastfeeding.
Earlier this year a federal court ruled that firing a mother for lactating was a violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, finding that breastfeeding fell under the category of “pregnancy and related conditions,” which are protected under the Act. Up until this ruling, as I discussed with Jake Marcus in this interview, the phrase “pregnancy and related conditions” has been interpreted thus far in employment law to not include breastfeeding (with the exception of California).
In education, Title IX, the federal law best known for its effect on women’s sports, prohibits discrimination in education for women on the same basis of “pregnancy and related conditions,” referring back to this phrase in the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. These protections mean that a student can’t be penalized academically for being pregnant or having her baby. So, while it hasn’t been tested in the courts, this new interpretation of “related conditions” to include breastfeeding in an employment context could at least theoretically be used to claim the same right for students in an education setting.
But prohibiting discrimination on the basis of lactation is not the same as guaranteeing an accommodation such as space and time to pump. In fact, the court stated clearly in the employment case that it was not ruling on the issue of accommodations. So while students may (theoretically, at least) be protected from discrimination, schools and universities have no legal obligation to accommodate them.
(It’s worth noting that the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights does recommend going beyond the requirements of the law to, among other things, designate a place for nursing students to pump. The National Women’s Law Center’s toolkit is a useful resource for pregnant and parenting students ).
Do state “nursing-in-public laws” guarantee a right to pump on campus? These laws don’t apply to pumping, and since these rights only extend to places where mothers and children are permitted to be, if a teacher or professor says that babies aren’t permitted in class, the law doesn’t help either.
High school students appear to have it even worse than college students. By one state’s estimate, nearly twice as many high school aged girls give birth every year as public school teachers (many of whom are guaranteed rights to pumping accommodations under state laws). An estimated 70% of teen mothers drop out of high school, but this leaves many who would need accommodations in order to pump or breastfeed at school. Some high schools offer parenting teens accommodations to pump or breastfeed. But some refuse to offer accommodations, as this Delaware high school student discovered. And unfortunately the law isn’t on the side of moms in this case.
Fortunately, some colleges and universities have voluntarily made accommodations for nursing mothers. When I was researching this in an effort to get our local university to institute a program, I found many examples of great campus lactation programs. But this is not universally the case, and in the absence of statutory requirements, the programs that do exist can be subject to budget cuts.
So as far as rights to pump go, current law leaves students out in the cold.
Were you a student while breastfeeding? Were you able to secure time and a clean place to pump? How did being a student affect your breastfeeding experience?
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons